Only a few hours after learning that he’d won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Prof. Michael Levitt was primarily concerned about one thing: Removing the pictures of himself he’d posted on his Facebook page from this past summer’s Burning Man Festival in Nevada, an annual alternative cultural event dedicated to “community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.”
“I’ve got to get home and delete them, I don’t want those pictures getting to the Swedish newspapers,” said Levitt in his office at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “There were a few pictures of me there in underpants, that’s how people walk around there. At least I wasn’t naked. I don’t think there were any Nobel Prize winners at Burning Man, so maybe next year I’ll be the first, and that would make me very happy. Another Nobel Prize winner getting invited to meet a head of state isn’t very interesting, and the food at those things isn’t too good, either.”
What is a respected professor like you doing at Burning Man?
“They say that I’m a very weird guy, but it was just fun. Last year I went for the first time to babysit my granddaughter; that was the excuse. This year I took my wife with me, she needs a refrigerator and a shower, so we had to rent an RV. I’m fine sleeping in a tent or in the car. It’s an amazing experience with a lot of lovely, beautiful people and lots and lots of fun.”
Levitt, 66, was born in South Africa and moved with his family to England when he was 15. When he was 21 he came to Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces, and married Rina, a sculptor. They went together to England, where he studied at Cambridge and where their three children were born. In 1979 he returned to Israel, lived in Rehovot and was a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 1986 he went to Stanford, and since then he splits his time between Israel and California; his wife lives in their Rehovot apartment most of the year.
“I’m really in both places a lot; I have toothbrushes here and in Rehovot,” he explains. “I have no position in Israel, which is important to emphasize. I am working here all the time, even when I’m not here. I can go to the Weizmann Institute whenever I want; the computer at the gate there recognizes my car.”
At Stanford, apparently, the parking arrangements are a lot more complicated.
“What are you thinking? Even now I won’t get a parking space in the building,” he tells one of his students, who speculated about his getting one, as other Nobel laureates have. “Winning the Nobel merely gives you the right to buy a parking space for $3,000 a year. I’ll keep walking.”
Although we’re at Stanford, the dominant language around us is Hebrew. It’s not just that Rina is present, but three of the six post-doctoral students working with Levitt are Israeli. Add to that two of Levitt’s former research assistants, also Israeli, who have come to visit, and the fact that the department’s last Nobel laureate, Prof. Roger Kornberg, is married to an Israeli and their two children have also come to offer congratulations.
“Israel exports scientists; there’s no room for all of them in Israel and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Levitt. “There was a period in Israel when yordim [emigrants] were regarded very badly, I hope that’s changed. The Chinese, for example, welcome it when people leave and return; they understand that that’s the way to bring new things into the country.”
Are there more opportunities here in the United States?
“Without a doubt. Because it’s much bigger, but also because the system is different. Stanford is not your average university, there are a lot fewer rules here, it’s a place with total freedom. When I was at my job in Israel I had to report when I came and left; here nobody cares – no one would think of checking that. But it’s not fair to compare it to Israel, it takes many years until a system develops.”
‘Was very satisfied with life in Israel’
Still, Yair Lapid sounds worried.
“A lot of people want to exploit the fact that my success was ostensibly not achieved in Israel in order to prove something, but I didn’t leave Israel because I didn’t have anything there; I was very satisfied with my life there. Here it’s just different, but I could have accomplished the same thing in Israel. I started the work that won me the prize at the Weizmann Institute. The conditions there are good, there just aren’t enough positions.”
If there’s something that really seems to be troubling Levitt, it’s the fear of how the win might change his life.
“I very much hope that I don’t come down with that disease that suddenly makes winners able to offer advice to anyone about anything. I can talk about Burning Man because I was there, but to start telling you what we should do about the settlements or the Palestinians? It’s not enough to meet twice with some leader in order to resolve those problems.”
Now people will listen to your opinion about anything. Won’t you want to take advantage of that?
“That would be a catastrophe. I know previous Nobel Prize winners; they never got back to a normal life. Maybe I’m lucky because I’m not an adult, I still feel 16 and so I have no ego and don’t feel like a person who knows everything. Feeling too full of yourself is sad; the best life is a life in which you’re open to everything. In science you have to be curious.”
So we won’t hear you express your opinion on political issues, for example?
“I very much hope you won’t hear me on political issues. My wife is also concerned that I might be tempted. But science is what interests me now. I feel as if I’m still at the start of my career. The work for which I won the prize was 40 years ago. It was a small thing that the committee in Sweden latched onto, but since then I’m doing a lot of other things that I think are more interesting.”
When asked to explain the 40 years of work that won him the Nobel, he insists it isn’t really complicated.
“The same way you can test a plane today without actually sending it into the air, we in 1969 started to do computer simulations of molecules. You can design proteins; you can design drugs. But we’re not finished, during the next 50 years computers will have a lot more computing power and we’ll be able to do more things.”
What are the practical uses of this?
“One of the uses the committee examined was the formulation of medicines. Twenty-five years ago I helped a certain company develop human antibodies. It became a big deal; I think the market for those drugs is around $20 billion, that’s a lot of money. I met a couple of guys here who wanted to set up a company and who asked me to advise them, and they wrote patents based on these computations. To this day the company gets something like half a billion dollars a year from it.”
‘A lot of politics in prizes’
Do you have a stake?
“I sold it a long time ago. The patent is only for 25 years, it expires very soon. When I did these calculations I wasn’t even thinking about drugs and such, it doesn’t work that way. You do this because of the beauty and your interest and your desire to understand how everything works.”
What was it like when you found out you’d won?
“You get the call and during the conversation you begin to understand that it’s happening. First of all you realize that this is going to change your day, and maybe your life. It feels just like the finger of God came and touched you. Then every member of the committee speaks to you and reminds you of what you owe him and what you did together. I got dressed, called my mother in London, called the kids and tried to watch the ceremony on streaming video on the computer but we didn’t succeed.”
Did you look at websites that tried to predict the outcome to check how you were doing?
“No, only after they told me. People don’t understand, but a lot of people win prizes because they work hard for them. They recommend friends, friends recommend them. There’s a lot of politics. I wasn’t really interested in any of that. It’s nice to get the prize, but it’s not such a big deal for me. I think it’s great for my family, for the kids, for my mother, for Israel, for Weizmann and for Stanford.”
There’s also a nice cash award that’s divided among the winners.
“There were times in our lives when the money would have made a difference, but today it won’t cause any significant change. Perhaps we’ll be able to give the kids more. For older people the most precious thing is time. Young people lack money, older people lack time. Perhaps someone ought to invent a way to balance that.”
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